HUN­GARY CAN­NOT SHAKE OFF ITS NAZI PAST

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBERT PHILPOT

THERE ARE few bet­ter il­lus­tra­tions of Hun­gary’s troubled past than the mon­u­ments which jos­tle for po­si­tion in Budapest’s Free­dom Square.

This Novem­ber, a new black gran­ite obelisk will be un­veiled to mark the suf­fer­ing re­sult­ing from the Sovi­ets’ sub­ju­ga­tion of the coun­try dur­ing the Cold War. It will join an­other obelisk which was erected in 1946 to cel­e­brate the Rus­sians’ lib­er­a­tion of the city from the Nazis and the more re­cent, but equally con­tentious, Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion memorial. Con­structed in 2014, the statue de­picts a Ger­man Im­pe­rial Ea­gle de­scend­ing upon Ar­changel Michael; a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Hun­gary, its de­trac­tors claim, which por­trays the coun­try as a vic­tim of Nazism and thus ig­nores its own re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as an Axis power dur­ing the war.

Those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties re­volve around the ac­tions of the man whose bronze bust stands out­side the square’s Re­formed Church: Hun­gary’s wartime leader, Ad­mi­ral Mik­lós Hor­thy.

This year sees the 70th an­niver­sary of Hor­thy’s death. That he did not suf­fer the fate of many of Hitler’s other East Euro­pean col­lab­o­ra­tors — the Al­lies re­fused to hand him over to the Hun­gar­i­ans, al­low­ing him to go into ex­ile — has aided the ef­forts of those who have been work­ing since the fall of Com­mu­nism to re­ha­bil­i­tate his rep­u­ta­tion. That ef­fort has gath­ered pace since the elec­tion of the na­tion­al­ist govern­ment of Vik­tor Or­bán in 2010. It has tol­er­ated the un­veil­ing of stat­ues and plaques to the ad­mi­ral, while the state-funded Ver­i­tas In­sti­tute for His­tor­i­cal Re­search, which was es­tab­lished three years ago and has as one of its aims the Gorka and a bust of Hor­thy in Budapest

ex­am­i­na­tion of the “achieve­ments” of the Hor­thy era, has pro­vided an in­tel­lec­tual façade to the ex­er­cise.

The for­mer Hun­gar­ian leader none­the­less re­mains a deeply controversial fig­ure, as was ev­i­dent in the in­credulity which greeted the news that one of Don­ald Trump’s top White House aides had worn the uni­form and medal of Vitézi Rend, an elite or­der es­tab­lished by Hor­thy, at the pres­i­dent’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in Jan­uary. British-born but the son of Hun­gar­ian émi­grés, Se­bas­tian Gorka last week de­nied fur­ther me­dia al­le­ga­tions that he is a mem­ber of the group, which was banned un­der Com­mu­nism but re-es­tab­lished by ex­iled vet­er­ans.

Ac­cord­ing to Róbert Kerepeszki of the Univer­sity of De­bre­cen, while Vitézi Rend was not pro-Nazi, it was “rad­i­cally right­ist, ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist as well as an­ti­semitic, never ad­mit­ting Jews”.

That Hor­thy — who as­sumed the ti­tle of “re­gent” in 1920 af­ter the col­lapse of Aus­tria-Hun­gary and ruled the coun­try for the fol­low­ing 24 years — was an an­ti­semite is be­yond dis­pute. In a pri­vate let­ter to his prime min­is­ter in 1940, he wrote: “As re­gards the Jewish prob­lem, I have been an an­ti­semite through­out my life.” In­deed, his govern­ment was the first in Europe to pass an­ti­semitic leg­is­la­tion af­ter the First World War — in Septem­ber 1920. Fur­ther mea­sures be­tween 1938-1941 aped the Nurem­berg Laws.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, too, while ini­tially re­main­ing nom­i­nally neu­tral, Hor­thy feasted on the en­trails of Nazi ag­gres­sion: gain­ing ter­ri­tory for Hun­gary in Cze­choslo­vakia, Ro­ma­nia and Yu­goslavia. In 1941, the pre­tence of neu­tral­ity was aban­doned and Hun­gary for­mally joined the Axis pow­ers.

It is, though, Hor­thy’s ac­tions dur­ing the Holo­caust that is most keenly fought over by his crit­ics and apol­o­gists. For the lat­ter, such as for­mer prime min­is­ter Péter Boross and Ver­i­tas direc­tor Sán­dor Sza­kály, it was the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion in March 1944 which ush­ered in the tragedy which be­fell Hun­gary’s Jews. The re­gent, they also claim, did not know un­til July 1944 that the 437,000 Jews be­ing de­ported were be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally mur­dered. On dis­cov­er­ing this, he im­me­di­ately or­dered the Ger­mans to halt the im­pend­ing round-up of Budapest’s Jews. Only when Hor­thy was top­pled in Oc­to­ber 1944 by the Nazi Iron Cross were they once again im­per­illed. This crucial de­lay thus en­sured that 120,000 of the cap­i­tal’s Jews sur­vived to see the city lib­er­ated the next year.

It is cer­tainly true that, prior to the oc­cu­pa­tion, Hor­thy had twice re­fused per­sonal re­quests from Hitler to de­port Hun­gary’s Jews to Ger­many, mak­ing the coun­try, at least in com­par­i­son to its neigh­bours, some­thing of a safe haven. None­the­less, the pic­ture of Hor­thy as the saviour of Budapest’s Jews ig­nores the ques­tion of his mo­ti­va­tions. As well as re­ceiv­ing ap­peals from the Vat­i­can, the King of Swe­den and the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, the re­gent was warned by Al­lied gov­ern­ments that he would be held re­spon­si­ble if the de­por­ta­tions did not stop. The Hun­gar­ian Holo­caust saw many acts of great brav­ery. Hor­thy’s de­sire for self­p­reser­va­tion was not among them.

PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES

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